Night 11 – Nata Lodge

Nata Lodge                

Their View

http://www.natalodge.com/

“An oasis set among the Mokolwane palms on the edge of the pans.  It is ideally situated close to the entrance to the Nata Sanctuary and is just off the main road, 10 km from Nata village. This is the junction to the Okavango, Chobe and Francistown areas. Nata Lodge offers a variety of accommodation styles. There are: Thatched chalets set in rustic African style; Luxury chalets with en-suit showers and baths; Custom designed en-suite safari tents on platforms; Camping site with stylish semi-open ablution facilities; Facilities include a pool, restaurant, lounge bar area and gift shop. Our new conference centre can accommodate up to 150 delegates. This venue is perfect for both functions and weddings. Guided tours to Nata Sactuary where there are excellent breeding grounds for a host of water birds. We also offer the exhilarating ‘quad biking.’ Our guides will take you around the dusty tracks of the sanctuary, past game and exploring the never ending Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. When the sun sets and the birds retire to their nests, it’s the turn o f the large family of nocturnal bush babies to entertain you at their feeding table. For keen bird watchers and naturalists, Nata Lodge offers open vehicle, three hour excursions into the Nata Sanctuar y. Mammal species in the sanctuary include antelope such as kudu and springbok , as well as springhares, jackals, foxes and monkeys. However the main attraction is the abundance of bird life. Around 165 bird species, including king-fishers, eagles, ostriches, pelicans, spoonbills and both greater and lesser f lamingos, have been recorded. When the Nata river flows, flooding the pan, the area becomes a paradise, dominated by water-loving birds from all around Africa.”

Our view

There is definitely a tried-and-tested formula about the lodges which clearly works and makes them very special places to stay. If you move from lodge to lodge you will find they share the Lodge Formula which follows a Dr Livingstone checklist:

 Thatched central bar or meeting area/ Boma
 Shady trees for dappled shade
 Landscaped swimming pool
 Everything appearing to be made out of natural materials
 All roofing is exquisitely thatched, sweeping down low
 The buildings (except for the ones we saw in Kasane and the unusual shape to the last one at Bush Lodge) are all single-story
 The roof inside however is barn-like, so there is a massive sense of open space and vaulted ceilings
 There are no walls other than sometimes some rushes or reeds, they are open to the elements
 Inside they are dark, with dark wood and dark wooden furniture
 Dark wooden flooring
 All structures are wooden as if made out of the local trees
 Lush plants and gardens
 Fire pit at night with chairs around it
 A lot of use of leather and animal hides
 Soft fire glow and candle lighting

The difference between them lay not in these common ingredients which they all had, so they were all very lovely, but in the attention to detail and the service.

Safari Drive had arranged for a mechanic to meet us at the lodge to fix our (still) broken fridge but on arrival at the lodge when we approached the Reception to check in and find out where our AWOL mechanic was the woman on reception was desperately lacking in confidence and acutely shy. She and the other people on Reception didn’t know anything about a mechanic and the woman couldn’t look us in the eye when we spoke to her. Our frustration at this was compounded when we quickly established at check-in that they had got our booking wrong. We had booked one of the luxury chalets which we’d been looking forward to after the dirt box that had been the Chobe Safari Lodge campsite and the long drive south.  When I protested that the booking was wrong the Receptionist wasn’t able to help. She was really lovely about it and tried to show us the vouchers she had in her book to prove the booking was as she had it, but that didn’t really help. I ended up having to telephone Safari Drive who spoke to the lodge and called us back to say the lodge had got the booking wrong. Well, yes. However the lodge was very popular, there were no other rooms available, so we couldn’t upgrade, so we ended up in one of the rustic chalets. The chalets are OK, they are clean and comfortable with thatched roofing and the best hot shower we had in the whole of Botswana, but essentially they are very basic concrete structures and when you’ve been dreaming of an altogether different level luxury, it is disappointing.

However despite being completely disorganised the lodge was clearly doing well. Being at the T junction of the country where drivers from South Africa have come north through Francistown, and stop here before going west to Maun or on to Kasane or Zim, they get a roaring trade. And despite being a bit of a shambles in its organization, it was beautiful.

Our mechanic, Peter, turned out to be there after all, he was sitting in the bar enjoying a beverage or two. He looked like he had been cleaved out of the sand and rock of the ground, his face worn by the sun into a permanent crease that made him always look like he was smiling. His graying hair was like a wild badger in a hurricane which merged with his equally bushy beard. He was Henry VIII in khaki shorts. There was something lovely and friendly about him and I was enormously pleased and relieved that finally someone was here who was prepared to help us with our fridge.

When I introduced him to the crippled fridge I tried to sound like I knew what I was talking about, but of course I was just a feeble tourist moaning about my lack of fridge so when I talked about Amps instead of whatever else you talk about electricity my game was up. Peter expressed how dreadful he thought the condition of the electrical system around the battery was and bemoaned these electronic systems. The dust and dirt and sand and constant jolting of the bush means only mechanical works, everything else gets shot. He said our recharging system wasn’t working.

It was only about 4pm so I thought he’d fix it, but apparently he needed to get stuff and he’d be back in the morning. He spoke to Safari Drive on the telephone and I thought we’d got everything sorted. I gave him very clear instructions about timings and where we’d meet and we waved him off happy our fridge would be fixed in the morning. It was the last we saw of Peter.

After a bad start we sat by the swimming pool, enjoyed a beer and began to relax. Because the lodge was a bit more disorganized it also had a very relaxed feel to it and we really liked the atmosphere and feeling of the place. There was something about the attention to detail which meant it wasn’t as luxurious as the other lodges we had stayed at, but this was made up for the lovely atmosphere of the place. It was bigger, there were more people around, but that was OK and perhaps added to the feeling of it being a bit jollier. Everywhere was thatch and sand nestled under lovely shady trees. The lodge has a really lovely swimming pool with a charming waterfall that made a lovely sound and also looked idyllic. However when we dipped in our toes it was colder than the English Channel. Not having a wet suit with us we didn’t go for a dip.

Later on that evening we had a G&T in the lovely bar area and heard a TV for the first time since we’d left the UK. And it happened to be an English voice from the BBC saying people at home had died in terrible floods, the UK was having the worst summer on record.

Our evening meal was a braai buffet in the boma area which was very lovely. We helped ourselves to piles of barbequed meat and in the flickering candlelight from our table and lanterns hanging all around us we shared a bottle of wine and enjoyed a really gorgeous evening.

The shady tree canopy surrounding the lodge is a hive of activity, with a bird feeding area providing the bird watcher with the opportunity of viewing a variety of species from the comfort of either the pool deck or open bar.  When the sun sets and the birds retire to their nests, it’s the turn of the large family of nocturnal bush babies to entertain you at their feeding table.  We saw things flying and jumping like they’d got springs in their tails. If you can imagine a cross between Zebedee and a squirrel, that’s a bush baby, with apparently saucer-huge eyes.

True to the lodge being very disorganised they had a bit of confusion over an activity we’d booked and paid for in the morning. If you have time I’ve read that the bird sanctuary here is well worth visiting. The Nata River delta feeds the Sua Pan in the Nata sanctuary and is the home to many of birds, especially spectacular I believe in the wetter season. However instead we had paid for a two hour quad bike trip onto the salt pan, for us both. We went out merrily onto a pan and the guide told us to go around in a circle for what I assumed was a practice session to get us used to the bikes. The bikes were great fun and it was brilliant doing something a bit different, albeit still crashing along on four wheels. We did our first lap. Second. Third. Fourth. The guide kept waving us on. By about the 5th lap I asked the guide where we were going next and he replied: ‘Back to the lodge.’ I really don’t think they were trying to con guests, there was nothing underhand about it, I think they just genuinely made a mistake. However, to manage your expectations, it is a world away from the quad biking you can do on the Makgadikgadi Pans with Jack’s Camp, but then so is the price. And despite swallowing a great deal of dirt and dust we definitely had fun on the bikes.

When we got back to the lodge Peter had still not turned up and had not collected our keys to mend our fridge while we’d been out. We phoned Safari Drive who said they did not know what was going on either. After a bit of investigating they came back to say Peter had thought we’d said to meet him at 3pm and now we had to go and find him. We were given a story about his garage being near the butchers. Following Safari Drive’s instructions we drove around for 20 minutes on a wild goose chase trying to find this mystery garage before once-and-for-all giving up on having a fridge at all. The whole fiasco over the fridge left us feeling like we’d met plenty of people along our route who could have helped us if they’d chosen to, but people here don’t go out of their way for you, they don’t seem inclined to be helpful, and despite turning up the day before to help Peter just wasn’t’ able to finish the job, nice but useless.

Overall Nata Lodge was a very special place. It is locally run by Batawana people and there was something really fantastic about knowing that the people of Nata were getting a direct benefit from our staying there rather than it just going into some wealthy South African bank account. The staff who work at the Lodge are very friendly, the relaxed atmosphere was brilliant, and it was an idyllic oasis to stay and relax.

However I do get fed-up of hearing from people who you turn to for help: “It’s Africa. What can you do? The best thing to do about it is laugh” and watch helplessly as they throw their hands in the air and walk away.

I’ve met too many Africans, local or otherwise, who have been very professional, organized, savvy and impressive, so the ‘Oh its Africa’ excuse’ starts to wear a little thin after a while and sounds more and more just like that: a very poor and weak excuse for something that could have been done better to fob off the tourist.

If someone doesn’t know what better means or looks like and just doesn’t know any better that’s fine, that individual can always be told what better is so that things can be improved. The shy Receptionist at the lodge was a great example of this. You don’t know what you don’t know, and that’s fine and she was lovely, so good for her.

However when people know better and apathy is the real problem, they just can’t be bothered through lack of care or pride in themselves and what they do, then ‘Oh Africa’ is just a feeble excuse for laziness. Africa gets blamed for a lot of crap from individuals who know better and should be ashamed of themselves, blaming Africa when the buck should stop firmly with them. Their apathy is contagious and seems to make too many people accept nonsense or rubbish when everyone knows things could be done better. There is complacency and shirking of responsibility, compounded by a lethargic acceptance that this is OK because it is Africa, so too many end up giving and receiving something poorer than they could. I choose to mention this here because apparently Peter was an example of this.

With proper training and day-to-day development from a manager who in turn is trained to coach her to improve and progress, the shy Receptionist will shine, and so will the whole of Nata Lodge to achieve its potential, its all there and they can do it, its just going to take a bit of training, coaching, patience and time. My worry is the Botswana Government has set this target date of 2012 or 2016. Has this been agreed by the people as realistic? What happens if the timetable is too short and people need more time? What are the expectations riding on this? What will happen if these are disappointed? It is all very well having ideals and African Solutions to African Problems, but they have to be supported by fundamental economic enablers or these people are being thrown a hot potato they are not ready to catch. I found our experience at Nata Lodge to be that of Botswana with a great deal of what was right and wrong and the questions it left me asking were representative of the whole country.

Places like Nata are a tremendous flagship for National hope, and although people like JC and his wife from Xakanaxa are giving up and shipping out, I hope very much that most of Botswana doesn’t follow their footsteps and give up on itself and instead takes the lead from places like Nata.

The (unpronounceable) Makgadikgadi Pans National Park was a destination we could have visited as it was ‘on the way’ to our next destination. However it would have been about a 130km detour and we were put off by all the warnings about ‘enter at your own peril’ and sinking into the mud and getting lost. And because of faffing around waiting for and not finding the elusive Peter we left Nata in the end far too late to be able to make this detour anyway. As it was we’d seen a great salt pan before at Etosha in Namibia, the flat white moon surface for as far as the eye can see, so we were happy to get on to our next destination anyway. However Salt Pans are stunning, so if you can get to see them, I would still recommend it and there’s no doubt that the Jack’s Camp does look and sound remarkable, but for something close to £500 per person per night, it would have to be.

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2 Responses to “Night 11 – Nata Lodge”

  1. wilddogsandenglishmen Says:

    Just heard the news about the Nata Lodge fire, very sad, the team there were doing excellent work, and it was the best place to stay between Kasane and camping in the Nxai Pan, a real oasis, and the lodge had a more relaxed attitude to other lodges in the country that definitely went down well with self-drive campers like me who’d just spent the previous weeks in the bush! I really hope there is a phoenix to rise from these ashes.

  2. Jeff Smith Says:

    I looked at this blog long ago and found it very interesting. The most interesting part for me was about Peter, the mechanic from Nata. Peter is a good friend of mine who has relocated to Australia.

    I lived in Nata for a time myself so I know Peter fairly well. Your description of him was wonderful and brings back many memories. It could be said that he is somewhat less than reliable in certain situations (such as yours). Once in 1994, he was kind enough to let me use his workshop to make some major repairs to my Series III Landy. After giving me some instructions to get me started, he left, telling me he was just going to the other side of the village to run an errand, and would be back shortly to help me along. He was gone for three days.

    He did come back though. He helped me finish the job, and I got a great story out of the experience.

    Peter is a wonderful person and the most innovative mechanic I’ve ever met.

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